Hearts of Oak

Towards a deep recipe for acorn bread

Latest in our Dark Kitchen series, looking at food and foraging in a time of fall. Robert Alcock heads into the oak groves in northern Spain to garner one of the ancestral wild staples of Europe and America, the acorn. Now almost forgotten as a food, he discusses why this free 'subsistence' food fell by the wayside, and how we might now pay attention to the 'uncivilised' plenty beneath our feet.
is an eco-designer, builder, writer, father, Zen animist, and activist. He and his partner created Abrazo House ecological learning centre in northern Spain. If he's not there, he can usually be found in Edinburgh, where he makes mischief with Extinction Rebellion.  
A recipe is a story. You start with this, you do this with it, transformation happens, you end up with this, you are nourished by it. A deep recipe is a story that keeps body and soul together, nourishing both.

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  1. Gathering: Collect acorns in autumn from under any species of oak, discarding those that are very discoloured, squishy, lightweight, or with holes.
  2. Drying: Spread your acorns out to dry in a single layer, in a well-ventilated place out of direct sun. I use stackable plastic baskets, lined with newspaper. The acorns can be left there until you’re ready to process them.
  3. Planting: When you help yourself to acorns, you should also help the tree to reproduce. As you spread the acorns to dry, select the very biggest and best to plant immediately (acorns germinate quickly and don’t keep well), in spots where they’ll be protected from grazers and grass-cutters, e.g. among thorny bushes.
  4. Shelling: After a few days of drying, you can easily remove the shells with your fingers, or with a nutcracker or penknife.
  5. Grinding: Put the shelled acorns, a couple of handfuls at a time, into a blender with water and grind them to a coarse meal.
  6. Leaching: Pour the meal into a cloth bag and place this in a saucepan or bowl. Fill the bag and pan with water and leave to soak, removing the bitter tannins. Change the water about five times over a 24-hour period.
  7. Baking: Now your acorn meal is ready to use immediately, store in the freezer, or dry in the oven (read on to the end for two home-grown acorn bread recipes).

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Acorns under the oaks

I’m working my way gradually uphill, gathering acorns as I go. It’s a golden October afternoon, sunny with a light breeze and very quiet: I can hear the gentle chirping of crickets, and in the far distance the barking of a village dog.

The land, here in the mountains of northern Spain, is steep and undulating, with many little sunken dells and outcrops of limestone. It’s grassy parkland with thousands of young walnut trees, alongside a range of other species including some mature sessile oaks, Quercus robur – 80 to 150 years old, I estimate from their girthunder which the ground is fairly carpeted with acorns: sleek, fat, glossy. They look good enough to eat, but instead I pop them in my bag, four or five to a handful, moving on to a different spot when they’re scarce or undersized, discarding those that bear the round exit hole of the acorn weevil. (The female acorn weevil bores a tiny hole in an acorn and lays her egg; the grub then eats the acorn from the inside and bores a larger hole to get out.) Every acorn is a tiny piece of good news, a micro-hit of pleasure. I’m feeding my family, storing up for the winter.

So I wander on, heading uphill to minimise bending down, but with much back- and side-tracking, until I get to my favourite sitting spot: a horseshoe of karst, ringed with oaks to form a sort of outdoor living room, with a ceiling and floor of leaves, green and brown. It’s a place that feels welcoming and generous, like there’s a benign intelligence here, even though I may not be able to communicate with it. Coming here is like coming to a friend’s house, one who appreciates the companionship of shared silence.

By now my bag’s full of acorns, so I fold over the top, place it on a flat rock as a cushion, and sit down to write. 

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For many thousands of years, wherever oaks grew, acorns (‘oak-corns’) were a staple food for people. Balanophagy, the eating of acorns, can be seen across a wide range of cultures since earliest prehistory.

Russell Smith wrote, back in 1929: ‘It may be possible that the human race has eaten more of acorns than it has of wheat … Those humans (and possibly pre-humans) who dwelt in or near the oak forests in the middle latitudes Japan, China, Himalaya Mountains, West Asia, Europe, North America have probably lived in part on acorns for unknown hundreds of centuries, possibly for thousands of centuries.’1

Anyone who’s read an Asterix book knows that the Celts venerated the oak, but who knows that it also gave them their daily bread, and ‘large quantities of acorns have been found hoarded in most [Celtic] hill-forts’?2

In Greek myth, the first man was Pelasgus, ancestor of the Pelasgians; he ‘sprang from the soil of Arcadia, followed by certain others, whom he taught to make huts and eat acorns’  – a diet that persisted into classical times, when an oracle forbade the Lacedaemonians to touch the land of the Arcadians with the words: ‘In Arcadia are many men who eat acorns, who will prevent you.’3 Arcadia later entered the Western imagination as a land (or an age) of abundance and liberty, not corrupted by civilization, and closely associated with the use of acorns for food.4

At the time of Columbus, what is now California was home to perhaps one-third of the population of North America, essentially living as hunter-gatherers with acorns as their staple food, stored in characteristic granaries loosely woven from branches for air circulation, that could be seen on the outskirts of villages. 5

If you live near oak trees, or your ancestors did, anywhere in the world, then at some point in the past, acorns were part of your culinary heritage. Acorn bread is your birthright, but it’s one that you’ve likely never tasted. At some point, the idea of eating acorns seems to have dropped out of Western culture like a millstone. They may be unique in this regard, as a staple food in vast areas of the world that’s been almost entirely forgotten. Which raises the questions: why and how did we forget all about eating acorns, and what might we have to gain by remembering again?

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Shelling acorns

There’s more physical hunger in 2020, in materially wealthy Western countries, than there has been for generations. It’s being driven by social inequality, economic decline, lockdown, unemployment, climate chaos. It would be naïve to say to hungry people in the West, ‘Forage for your food, go and make acorn bread.’ (Let them eat cake!) The commons were enclosed generations ago, cultures of self-sufficiency eroded, people in poverty have little access to nature or time for gathering and processing food.

But there’s also a deeper epidemic of soul hunger, manifested as loneliness, depression, anxiety, addiction, cult-like behaviour, and extreme ideologies, including the dominant one. We’re told our economy must grow endlessly in order to survive; citizens are redefined as consumers, mere conduits for goods and services. We’re told we need a high-speed railway to get from A to B 20 minutes quicker, never mind the 300-year-old oaks that are in the way. What are these but symptoms of the most desperate, all-consuming, famine of the soul?

Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how’.6 Even if acorn bread, at present, can’t help much with the ‘how’, the hunger of the body, I think it is a powerful medicine for the ‘why’, the hunger of the soul. There’s no better cure for what ails us than seeking out the company of trees, forming a relationship of mutual aid with them, taking them into ourselves as nourishment.

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The land where I’ve come to gather acorns and sit under the oaks isn’t commons, either. But the owners live in Madrid and hardly ever come to the village, especially not during a pandemic. I don’t think they’d mind my gathering their acorns, anyway: nobody else uses them, certainly not as food. Nor did I, until quite recently.

Back in 2005, when my partner Almudena and I were planning a small food forest for our newly purchased plot of land, in this tiny village in the green Cantabrian hills, I read up on a wide range of trees, shrubs, and other perennial food plants. None of the sources I found talked about acorns, except for some special low-tannin varieties of holm oak, Q. ilex, which I couldn’t get hold of, and weren’t suited to our maritime climate anyway. So we planted plenty of walnuts, sweet chestnuts, hazels, even some ill-fated pecans and monkey puzzle trees, but no oaks.

Fast forward a decade mostly spent raising children and mud houses, while also working for our bread and butter. We had precious little time to devote to our young woodland; luckily, trees, like kids, seem to thrive on benign neglect. After what seemed like a lifetime we raised our heads, looked around and, to our surprise, found ourselves living something approximating the good life we’d dreamt of when we got into this adventure in the first place, with a certain amount of free time to play around with things that weren’t a matter of immediate survival.

One of the most successful of these experiments was acorn bread. Our daughters, as fussy with their food as most teenagers, are both wild about it. Friends and visitors have also praised the rich nutty taste, though not many guess the secret ingredient.

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When I explain the process, people often say that it seems like a lot of work. We’ve been conned into seeing work as a (perhaps) necessary evil, to be avoided whenever possible; but ‘work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.’ 7 The important question is not, ‘how much work?’ but ‘what kind of work?’ 

In processing acorns, the only step that could be considered tedious is shelling, which you can do while watching a film, listening to music, or talking with friends. Also, the work is all out in the open, so to speak. How much labour, energy, and damage are hidden in the kilo of flour we casually reach down off the shelf? How many fossil fuel subsidies, carbon emissions, agribusiness profits, farmer suicides, exploitation of migrant workers, soil erosion, genetic manipulation, artificial pesticides, fertilizers and food additives have been swept under the rug by the invisible hand of the market?

The oak tree makes acorns, quietly and without fuss, as a free gift, knowing the vast majority will end up eaten. The least I can do to honour that gift with my own work, which I see as both a meditative practice and a gentle form of activism: the Buddhist idea of ‘right livelihood” in a nutshell.

One way or another, if you aspire to make any kind of positive change in the world, you’ll need to give serious thought to right livelihood: how to feed, clothe, and shelter yourself and your loved ones in ways that don’t contribute to the wrongs you hope to right. You won’t get far by biting the hand that feeds you; and unless activism is grounded in everyday reality, it’s prone to lose its way, either in a futile quest for ideological purity, leading to factionalism, or in fighting against individual parts of the whole   – the heads of the Hydra  – until it becomes defined by, and dependent on, the problems it started out trying to fix.

Every acorn shell I crack by hand is another crack in the armour of our warlike civilisation. Every handful of acorn meal I eat, feeds the wildness within me. Direct action never tasted so good.

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Storing acorns for drying

Yet during the five years I’d been making and sharing acorn bread, here in Cantabria and in the neighbouring Basque country, nobody’s ever called to mind their grandmother’s recipe, or mentioned how people used to make it in their village. Which is curious, if we consider that ‘until a few decades ago, many people in rural areas would habitually eat acorns, raw (if they were sweet or only slightly bitter), toasted, as soup or stew, roasted as ‘coffee’, or as bread mixed with maize flour (as talos, like Mexican tortillas) or with wheat flour (as bread)… using immersion in streams and rivers, heat, ashes, and other processes to remove the tannins… and drying as the most important method of preservation, which meant they could be kept for up to two years.’ 8

It turns out that the culture of eating acorns didn’t die a natural death: it had to be eradicated by force, along with other elements of rural self-sufficiency.

According to César Lema’s guide to Cooking with acorns in the post-petroleum era,  ’It was Franco who introduced modernity to the countryside, with the whip, the cudgel and the bullet… In state schools, the teachers reprimanded and even punished those who ate acorns and other wild foods. Among adults, the idea was spread that this was a practice of fierce and bestial beings—yokels, hicks, bumpkins or louts—who needed to be ‘civilized’ through beatings by the Guardia Civil and sermons from the pulpit… The interests of the state required the elimination of self-sufficiency and habituating the population to eating only what was acquired via the market, and valuing only the products of agriculture… We have had great difficulty in gathering information about this topic, because acorns are a food which the Basques (and this statement can be extended to other regions) are still ashamed of admitting they have eaten.’9

An egalitarian, self-sufficient, non-monetary rural culture, which had existed since the early Middle Ages with the commons as its social safety net, was destroyed in a matter of two decades, leading to mass emigration to the cities (including that of my parents-in-law, who left their respective villages in Castille and León for Bilbao). The trauma inflicted by Franco’s regime was buried during the transition to democracy by a political and legal ‘pact of forgetting’ that is still largely in place. (Under the Amnesty Law of 1977, crimes committed during the dictatorship cannot be tried in Spanish courts.)

But ignoring buried trauma won’t make it disappear: we will always be running away from it unless we turn and face it. We have to leach its bitterness from our lives if we are to taste their true flavour. As Lorca wrote: ‘We must remember towards tomorrow.’10

^

Here are my reinventions of two traditional acorn bread recipes, as eaten in villages all over the northern Iberian Peninsula up until the 1950s. In the maritime climate of the north coast, spelt (an ancient variety of wheat) was widely grown until the arrival of maize from the New World, and to this day in some areas. Both types of bread are delicious with either sweet or savoury dishes. 

NB: Acorns and maize are, in principle, gluten-free, while spelt is considerably lower in gluten than modern wheat.

 

Acorn and Spelt Bread

6 cups leached acorn meal

6 cups spelt flour (or other bread flour)

1/2 tablespoon salt

fresh yeast

water

sesame, poppy or sunflower seeds

Mix the acorn meal, flour and salt in a large bowl. Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup of water and add this. Knead the dough well, adding water (or more flour) until it is a good consistency, not too stiff and not too sticky. Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave to rise overnight. Knead again and shape into loaves, scoring the top of the loaf with a knife to prevent splitting and make it easier to slice later. Brush the top with water and sprinkle with seeds. Bake for 45 minutes at 200°C. Makes two large loaves.

 

Acorn and Maize Talos

2 cups leached acorn meal

2 cups hot water

2 cups maize flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

Put the acorn meal, hot water, and salt in a saucepan and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring now and then to prevent sticking. Take off the heat and blend with an electric mixer to get rid of any lumps. Add the maize flour, mixing well until you have a stiff dough that is not too sticky. You may need to adjust the amount of flour. Leave to stand until cool. The dough can be kept overnight in the fridge. 

Roll the cool dough into small balls between your palms, then either pat it into flat cakes by hand or, for thinner talos, roll it out between two sheets of plastic, or use a tortilla press. The talos can either be toasted in a hot pan with no or a very little oil, or baked in the oven for 15 minutes at 200°C. Serves four. 

 

Endnote about Planting Oaks

Acorns normally germinate in autumn, putting down a tap-root before going dormant for the winter, then sprouting in spring. They don’t much like being transplanted, so it’s better to plant them in their final position as quickly as possible. You could say that the nature of oak is rootedness. The classic story by Jean Giono, The Man Who Planted Trees, is a lovely ecological fable but a terrible tree-planting guide: the protagonist, Elzéard Bouffier, kept his acorns in a sack all winter, so they wouldn’t have germinated.

 

1.    J. Russell Smith (1929) Tree Crops: A permanent agriculture, p.150. Public domain, obtained from the Soil and Health Library,
https://soilandhealth.org.
2.     https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castro_culture
3.     Robert Graves (1955) The Greek Myths I, ch. I.; Pausanias (110- 180 AD) /Description of Greece/. See https://oldeuropeanculture.blogspot.com/ for many more references to acorns in archaeology and in ancient texts.
4.     See Don Quixote’s speech to the goatherds in Cervantes (1606) Don Quixote, chapter XI.
5.     For more native Californian acorn lore, see Suellen Ocean (1993) Acorns and Eat’emhttps://is.gd/k40kGZ
6.   Viktor Frankl (1945) Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a psychotherapist and Auschwitz survivor.
7.     E.F. Schumacher (1966) ‘Buddhist Economics’ https://centerforneweconomics.org/publications/buddhist-economics/
8.    Lema Costas, César (2013) Cocinar con Bellotas en la Era Post-Petrolera, pp. 7–8, 72–73. Translation mine. From https://is.gd/iRZ4F2
9. Ibid., p. 73. Compare the elimination of the chestnut-based village economy in France: https://dark-mountain.net/bread-not-gold/
10.  García Lorca, Federico (1931) /When Five Years Pass/.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 18 – FABULA

The Autumn 2020 issue is dedicated entirely to fiction, featuring short stories, illustrations and colour artwork
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Comments
  1. This is a wonderful acorn article! I live in Massachusetts in the USA and I also collect acorns. For easier shelling, I put the acorns in a single layer on a board, put another board on top, and then stand on top and wiggle. This cracks a lot of acorns at once. Then I put the cracked acorns and shells in a bucket of water and scrunch them in my hands. The shells float to the top and I pour them off.

    Thank you for this great article, and I’m looking forward to the new recipes!

  2. Thanks for the tip, Laura. I’m guessing you’re talking about American Red Oak (Q. rubus) which have harder shells. Not sure that method would work well with Q. robur.
    You might be interested to know that Thoreau tried eating Q. rubus acorns, but he boiled them with the shells still on which did nothing to improve the flavour.

  3. Thank you Robert.
    And thank you too Laura – that is an excellent shelling recommendation.
    I have collected a few buckets of acorns, and processed some of those, but so far I have not found a foolproof leaching technique, so I will try your suggestion in this article.

    I live in a small city in Kansas, USA, but we are surrounded by many excellent oak trees.
    Just this week I spotted a couple of Quercus robur trees planted next to a parking lot downtown.
    I had to hurry before it rained, but using a snow shovel I was able to collect enough to mostly fill 4 buckets.
    Now for separating the acorns from leaves and caps and debris.
    I saved a lot of time picking them up, but I will spend just as much time sorting them.
    Maybe there is some meaning in that mathematics.

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